Blackwell’s Presents: What makes a book rare?

Bring Andrew Hunter a book from 1900 and he might scoff. Hunter, an antiquarian bookseller from Blackwell’s in Oxford’s Rare Books department, trades only truly old and rare books.

His talk at Blackwell’s as part of the Rare Books Festival (20-30 March) detailed what it is for a book to be considered valuable by booksellers and collectors. “I have here a book printed in 1497,” said Hunter, holding up a small and unassuming volume. “That’s old. 1900 isn’t that old.” Hunter works with antiquarian books, meaning specifically old texts. Still, old isn’t everything.

Something he hears a lot from people coming into the Oxford shop is that a book “is in good condition, considering its age.” To Hunter, this is meaningless. A book is either in good condition or it’s not—he cannot sell a book that is unreadable or falling apart.

There are many threats to the condition of a book: fire; water; neglect and even censorship. The Great Fire of London destroyed an enormous number of books, which were subsequently thrown into the  river Thames—the metal clasps from their bindings can still be found in its banks with a metal detector. Other books perish merely from not being read enough, as the leather binding will stiffen without contact from the oils in human fingers.

Then there’s the burning of books deemed blasphemous or improper, which has also been around for as long as books have—the public hangman in a town was often called on to burn books.

So if a book survives the many perils of passing centuries, is that enough to make it rare? The answer is still no, according to Hunter. Monasteries and private houses, the major book collectors of the Medieval and pre-Modern world, were fairly good at preserving books.

The books that these sites would own – largely religious and academic texts – will be fairly numerous, maybe several dozen or even a few hundred copies, and therefore not rare. Truly rare texts, those whose number can be counted on one hand, tend to be from more obscure subjects.

The books Hunter had to show were indeed odd, including one with the misleading title called The Works of Aristotle that was actually just a sex manual for 17th century youths.

Another, Corona Regia, is a pointed satire of King James I that claims to be published in London; however, it turns out that it was actually published in Holland, its publication nearly starting a war between the two countries.

Working in antiquarian books for 40 years probably is related to Hunter’s lack of showmanship, making this talk more like a lecture and slightly dry. However, his wealth of information and love for his garnered work brought gleams of excitement into the event.

While his quiet voice was sometimes overwhelmed by the blaring horns and sirens of South Bridge during rush hour, the audience just moved a bit closer so as not to not miss anything about these fascinating relics of the past.

Photo credit: Giorgi Sharvashidze

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